Jun 082008

The Denver Post printed my letter to the editor on Colorado’s proposed “personhood amendment” today.

As printed, it reads:

I’m disheartened that the “personhood” amendment has gathered the signatures required to appear on the ballot. A woman’s fundamental right to control her own body, including her right to terminate or sustain a pregnancy, should not depend on majority vote. This would violate that right in spades, based on the fantasy that an embryo is equal to an infant. It would force a woman to provide life support to any fertilized egg — even at the risk of her life and health and even if ruinous to her goals and dreams. It would make actual persons — any woman capable of bearing children, plus her husband or boyfriend — slaves to merely potential persons. That kind of moral evil has no place in a modern society; it deserves to be soundly defeated at the polls in November.

Diana Hsieh, Sedalia

I’m determined to work to defeat this insane amendment. Despite many more signatures than required to place it on the ballot, it seems unlikely to pass. Many religious leaders oppose it, and even even the three Catholic bishops in Colorado don’t support it. Nonetheless, the risk is real, particularly given the religious fervor of the anti-abortionists. Moreover, it’s an excellent opportunity to defend individual rights, particularly abortion rights, against demands for the imposition of Biblical law.

Rights and Abortion

 Posted by on 4 June 2008 at 6:07 am  Abortion, Politics
Jun 042008

After a recent discussion of abortion on my OActivists mailing list, a subscriber e-mailed me to suggest that perhaps right apply to the fetus at the point of natural viability, rather than to the baby at birth. (By natural viability, I mean when the fetus can survive outside the womb without any special medical technology such as a respirator or feeding tube.) Some years ago, I found that “natural viability” position quite appealing, but Paul eventually argued me out of it. So in my reply to my correspondent, I offered my own version of Paul’s argument. Here’s what I wrote:

If a woman aborted a late-stage pregnancy just because she felt like it — when she could have just as easily given birth at full term and adopted the baby — I would regard that as morally wrong. That’s not the kind of person that I’d ever wish to have any dealings with, as the action would indicate a serious lack of respect for human life. However, that doesn’t settle the legal question of rights.

The problem with natural viability as a standard for rights comes when a late-stage pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. Let’s imagine that the pregnant woman must end the pregnancy somehow or she will die. If she aborts, she has a 5% risk of serious complication. That’s because the doctor can kill and dismember the fetus in the womb, then extract it. (Sorry, that’s icky.) However, if she attempts to give birth to the fetus, she has a 15% risk of serious complication, with a 5% risk of death. (Such cases do happen. In general, a live birth will always involve greater risk of complications than a late-term abortion.)

If a fetus has rights at the point of natural viability, then either (1) the woman must be obliged to suffer any risk of death — perhaps 99% — in order to respect the rights of the fetus within her or (2) the state must arbitrarily draw a line somewhere specifying the acceptable risk to her life for the sake of a live birth. The first option is morally monstrous: you’re sacrificing a person with an actual life to a fetus with merely a potential life to lead. The second isn’t any more appealing because some arbitrary amount of risk is deemed obligatory for the woman to assume. In either case, women will be forced to die for the sake of the fetus. The only question is whether it’s more women dying or less women dying.

After some unhappy thought about such cases, I decided that the only clear and bright line — the only way that the state would not be forcing pregnant women to sacrifice their own lives and health for the sake of a fetus — was to accept that rights begin after the fetus has left the womb. So my general view is that rights adhere to any and all creatures with the potential for rationality living an biologically independent existence. By “living a biologically independent existence,” I just mean that the creature is not not biologically connected to another person — as is a fetus or the violinist in Judith Thomson’s famous essay on abortion — even if it is dependent on others for sustenance and aid, as are babies and people incapacitated by illness.


May 302008
A new threat to a woman’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness has arrived out here in the West. And it’s going straight for the jugular. Groups in Colorado and Montana believe they’re on a mission from God: to get voters to pass state Constitutional amendments defining “personhood” as beginning with fertilization. Under these amendments, full rights and equal protection under the law would be granted–not to a human being from the moment of birth–but to a fertilized egg.

But the country shouldn’t dismiss this lunacy as a bunch of “wild west hooey.” While similar efforts since 2005 in Georgia, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin and Mississippi have fizzled, advocates vow to not give up on redefining “personhood” in their image.

This utter perversion of the “right to life” is a mockery of the principle of liberty established by our Founding Fathers. It will create an inherent and irreconcilable conflict between the individual rights of a living person and a single-celled product of conception.

Groups pursuing “personhood” amendments use a simplistic combination of religious belief and scientific fact to advance their agenda. The Thomas More Law Center, which provides legal support for these organizations, calls itself “the sword and shield for people of (Christian) faith” to fight for Christian values, which it claims is the foundation of our nation. Kristi Burton, the founder of Colorado’s group (which just succeeded in being first in the country to get the proposal on the November ballot), was quoted as “….we have God. And he is all we need.” A religious supporter of Montana’s initiative finds her “proof” in Psalm 139:13, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

These groups conveniently usurp the facts of human embryology in making their case for “personhood.” But the biological reality that life begins developing at conception is totally irrelevant in terms of rights.

Our Constitutional rights as citizens apply only once we are born as separate entities. To quote Ayn Rand, a 20th century novelist and philosopher, “Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).”

If a barbaric “personhood” amendment passes in some state, whose rights will prevail when a woman has a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy? Will a girl who’s been raped be compelled against her will to carry a pregnancy resulting from that brutality? Will lawyers defending fertilized eggs argue that a miscarriage is a violation of an embryo’s right to life, making a woman and her physician legally negligent?

Our hard-fought scientific and political achievements in controlling fertility will revert back to the horse-and-buggy era. Many reliable birth control methods would have to be outlawed because they interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg. Couples unable to conceive would be forbidden to try in-vitro fertilization because some of the lab-created fertilized eggs are not used.

“Personhood” advocates brag about going for the gold: the outright overturn of Roe v Wade. They think they are being clever by passing in just one state a “personhood” amendment that will ultimately challenge the “loophole” in the 1973 majority opinion of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. He wrote: “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed…”

Traditional religious-right groups have tried for decades to outlaw abortion by the piecemeal evisceration of that fundamental right. But if a tyrannical majority of voters in Colorado or Montana approves a Constitutional amendment redefining the human being according to particular religious beliefs, it will be a milestone in tearing down the wall of separation between church and state.

Our freedoms, based fundamentally on the right to life, mean that we as individuals have the right to pursue life-sustaining goals–including decisions about pregnancy. But the particular freedom of religion does not mean the right to pass laws forcing citizens to live by biblical values.

“Personhood” advocates have corrupted the principle, “right to life,” and they’re exploiting their freedom of religion do it. Constitutional rights protect all of our liberties from the moment we’re born as separate individuals. And this is what we must zealously fight to preserve.

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